Richard Heller: Thirty years on, Labour still fights to break free from the prison of its past

THIS Wednesday will see the 30th anniversary of a huge aberration in British politics, Michael Foot's election as Labour leader. The next three years haunted all of his successors, especially Tony Blair who spent his entire leadership trying to bury them.

It is easy to see why. Under Michael Foot's leadership, the Labour party plunged into civil war. Tony Benn's campaign was an uninterrupted gift to Labour's enemies and assisted the infestation of the party by Trotskyites, extremists and cranks of every kind. The breakaway SDP, in alliance with the Liberals, almost relegated Labour to a permanent third place in British politics. Labour adopted a series of unpopular policies culminating in the infamous "suicide note" manifesto of 1983.

On top of these major disasters, Labour's operations in this period were often breathtaking in their incompetence and unprofessionalism. In 1981, Labour managed to lose money on a sponsored walk. Apart from being unpopular, many of its policies were so badly written that during the 1983 election I saw Labour candidates reading the Conservative election guide to understand them.

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Michael Foot was not responsible for all of these problems but he did not overcome them – and many of them he did not want to overcome. On campaign methods, he did not want a slick media operation: he sought to communicate through Parliamentary debate and stump speeches to the party faithful.

He regarded their rapturous response as a more accurate political predictor than opinion polls. He believed passionately in most of the suicidal policies and if there was one purpose to his leadership it was to keep Labour committed to unilateral disarmament. He is often depicted as an other-worldly figure; in fact, he was a cunning, proficient operator in Labour's internal politics, who nearly always got what he wanted.

People who worked for the party in the Foot years never forgot them. For many, it required a daily pretence: yes, I do believe that Michael Foot is our best possible Prime Minister, yes, I do believe in party policy, yes, everything will be fine on election day. Tony Blair did all these things to win a safe Labour seat and I believe that the experience left a permanent mark on him. He came to define his leadership as the negation of everything that Labour had stood for under Michael Foot.

In fact, Tony Blair's predecessors had already resolved most of Labour's major problems. Neil Kinnock had routed Militant, marginalised Tony Benn and the Hard Left and ditched the 1983 policies. John Smith had enfranchised rank-and-file party and trade union members in Labour elections – a major guarantee against a return to extremism. But Tony Blair wanted more, and he was never happier than when confronting the "old" Labour party which he had inherited.

If there were no real battles to fight, he chose symbolic ones, such as his replacement of Clause Four of the party's constitution with a typically New Labour collection of soggy soundbites, like wet cardboard clogging a dustbin.

Blair pushed through all his reforms of Labour party methods, values and policy as if the only alternative was a regression to Michael Foot's Labour party. Although Blair never mentioned him, Michael Foot fulfilled the role of Mr Jones in George Orwell's Animal Farm – a bogeyman to silence doubters.

Ed Miliband must avoid Tony Blair's compulsion to define himself by negation. Indeed, if he were looking for a negative role model, Tony Blair would, ironically, be a better choice than Michael Foot. Labour's defeat in the General Election was a judgment on New Labour not on Michael Foot. Even in 1983 some Labour policies were popular – protecting the NHS, public investment to boost jobs and growth, more affordable housing – and they might be even more popular today. Old Labour's suspicion of bankers looks wiser than New Labour's uncritical admiration.

If Michael Foot wasted time talking to party members, that looks today like a healthier strategy than Tony Blair's. He treated his party like Basil Fawlty on Gourmet Night: insult and abuse the regular customers in the hope of getting a better class of clientele. Labour party membership has collapsed and there is almost no one left in local parties for still-essential campaign tasks such as talking to voters.

If Michael Foot's approach to communications was ludicrously old-fashioned, it may have done less harm than Blair's decade of ultra-professional control and manipulation of the media, which contributed to a collapse of public trust in the political process. However, Ed Miliband knows that it would be as big a mistake to be Tony Blair. He has already referred several times to Labour's bad habit of fighting old battles and he clearly intends to define the Labour party in his own terms, based on present needs rather than bad memories.

Labour's history is not a prison but a restaurant, with many choices on the menu. Ed Miliband is free to order what he wants from them – and walk into the kitchen and invent some new dishes of his own.